Scientists wage war on wildlife poachers

Dr Rob Ogden at work; below, tusks seized at Brussels airport this week. Picture: Julie Bull
Dr Rob Ogden at work; below, tusks seized at Brussels airport this week. Picture: Julie Bull
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Just past the very inquisitive meerkats, up the hill beyond the café and around the corner from the snuffling warty pigs, is a wall and a door.

It’s at the very edge of Edinburgh Zoo – walk any further and you’ll be strolling up Kaimes Road – and the door’s bland, tattered appearance suggests what lies beyond isn’t likely to trouble the pandas’ reign as stars of the show.

Through, and up a short path, is a plain whitewashed bungalow. On the surface, at least, it seems a very long way from the bloody horrors of the illicit poaching trade, the vile business in which elephants’ tusks are ripped from their skulls to create ivory trinkets or rhinos are callously slaughtered for their horns.

And yet it’s here, in a fairly quiet office thousands of miles from the mutilated carcases of animals, that the war against global wildlife crime is being fought.

At its heart are specialist DNA techniques so remarkably smart that they can trace a sliver of ivory to a specific animal, reveal whether a single fish was plucked from an illegal fishing ground, and can tell if a tiger really was bred in captivity or instead snared, caged and sold for profit.

Put simply, it’s a combination of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation meets Animal Magic.

To be fair, Dr Rob Ogden cringes slightly at the CSI references – “We don’t go out to the field, that’s for the police and scene of crime officers,” he insists. Yet there’s no escaping the vital role a new and still rare breed of genetic scientists like him are playing in helping finally bring wildlife criminals to justice.

It means bone and tissue fragments collected from slaughtered elephants – even the blood found on suspects’ clothes – can be analysed and matched against ivory seizures to help build up a case against those responsible.

DNA from rhino horns can be analysed and held in a massive database which can help deter and catch criminals. And meat, in one case found in a freezer of a restaurant in Malaysia, can be DNA tested to establish its source: it was actually protected clouded monitor lizard flesh.

The DNA technology, originally developed as a groundbreaking tool for understanding human make-up, is now being regarded as a vital weapon in the battle against wildlife trafficking which, as organised crime muscles in to take advantage of the massive profits available from rare and endangered species, is soaring.

“It is technology that has only recently been possible,” nods Rob, whose ‘day job’ is head of conservation science at the zoo. “To be honest, we’d rather not be using this for crimes that have occurred, we’d rather it was seen as a deterrent.”

His other role is as programme director of TRACE, a non-governmental organisation which gathers forensic experts and enforcement agencies at wildlife crime hotspots around the world and pulls resources in an attempt to crack down on illegal animal trade.

Along with TRACE’s technical director Dr Ross McEwing, who also works within the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s conservation based Wildgene lab, the pair have helped countries desperate to stem the illegal trade by training their own scientists in DNA techniques which, when placed alongside other evidence, can help build a solid case against poachers, and dealers.

Thanks to their guidance, DNA labs in Malaysia, Vietnam and Bangkok – hotspots for the criminal trade – are already working at full capacity. Most recently the pair’s attention has turned to Gabon in West Africa, where a hugely successful elephant conservation programme has had the unfortunate effect of attracting poachers to what they callously regard as easy prey.

“A group of conservationists there were losing lots of elephants and wanted to look at the feasibility of a forensic lab to investigate elephant poaching and target which national parks were being affected,” recalls Rob.

The scale of the problem is massive: it’s estimated up to 25,000 elephants are lost to poachers every year in Africa. In Gabon, forest elephants, which are difficult to protect because of their very nature, are most at risk.

“Unfortunately Gabon is being seen as the place to go to get elephants,” adds Rob.

Tusks find their way across the world and tracing the ivory to individual corpses sounds impossible, however the genetic advances and a new push for governments and crime agencies to work together means Rob is hopeful more cases will come to court.

Poachers and their masters – often organised crime gangs – are the target. But re-educating the public is, he believes, another vital tool.

“There is only so much value in prosecuting an individual,” he says. “It’s much better to use the intelligence and build up a bigger picture.

“If someone is caught smuggling ivory out of Gabon, it’s about finding other information, such as where did it come from, what are his links, where is the supply chain.

“By doing that we can address the issue at a much higher level.”

• For more details about TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, go to

25,000 elephants killed in a year

The illegal wildlife trade has soared in recent years, making it the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world, behind drugs, human trafficking and counterfeiting.

The figures are staggering: rhino poaching alone has soared 7700 per cent since 2007. An estimated 23 metric tons of ivory – which represents around 2500 elephants – was uncovered in 13 seizures of illegal ivory in 2011. Last year around 25,000 elephants were illegally killed on the African continent, raising concerns that the African elephant population is at risk of localised extinction. In one episode, 86 elephants, including 33 pregnant ones, were killed near the Chad border with Cameroon.

The trade is driven by high profit margins – a rare specimen can fetch enormous prices for traders, while international crime networks make wildlife crime big business – not unlike trade in illegal drugs and arms.

Getting message out

SOCIAL media is also helping to raise awareness of the horrors carried out by wildlife poachers.

Shocking images of slaughtered rhino and elephants are often quickly shared around the world. The Prince of Wales and Prince William recently spearheaded a push to tackle wildlife crime – despite both being criticised for their own interest in hunting – with the hashtag EndWildlifeCrime.

Conversation geneticist Dr Rob Ogden agrees that networks like Twitter and Facebook and celebrity involvement play a vital role in spreading the word.

“A big Twitter campaign in China aimed at reducing demand for ivory and shark fin was very successful by asking celebrities to tweet on the issue and then seeing how many retweets they got,” he says.

“The number was in the hundreds of thousands.”